Did you know that the sweet faced woman behind the counter scooping the divine confections at Gelato Gilberto has her doctorate in Art History? Kristin Gilbert, owner of Gelato Gilberto in Norton Commons, is a Renaissance woman. She and her husband Justin moved to Italy on a impulse that took them to the blessed land of gelato and all that entails. Now back in Louisville, and celebrating their fifth anniversary at Gelato Gilberto, Kristin reflects on all the places her interesting life has taken her.
Tell me about your art history career.
I’ve got a PhD in Art History from the University of Iowa with a focus on eighteenth-century French artists who studied in Italy, so my dissertation research involved a lot of archival research in France and Rome. For the past three years, I was the Master Teacher for Gallery Learning at the Speed Art Museum, creating curriculum for the docents and working with the curatorial staff to write wall labels for exhibitions.
Not very many people know this, but the little angel on our gelato pint labels actually comes from a print in a French manual about making ice cream that was published in 1768. I love it because it’s such a conflation of all my lives. Knowledge is never wasted!
What gave you the idea for owning a gelateria?
My husband and I met as graduate students in art history at Vanderbilt and both of us had studied abroad in Italy during college, so of course we both loved gelato. We lived in Florence for a semester while I was doing some research and met a gelato maker while attending these really amazing carnevale parades in Viareggio. He told us he’d like to come to America and Justin said, “You should sell gelato in America. Americans would love gelato.” And then a light bulb went off in both our heads, “Americans would love gelato!” It was ten years before we did anything about it, but it was always in the back of our minds.
What made you move to Italy?
Motive, means and opportunity. It had always been a dream of ours to live there, and we visited whenever we had even a little bit of money saved up. We took crazy cheap flights with five legs that went through Belgium and took 24 hours to complete just to get there. In 2003, we moved to London while my husband Justin was working as the Director of Franchise Operations for an American pizza company in the United Kingdom. When his job ended, we took our savings and decided to move to Italy, specifically to study making gelato. We both took courses in Italian from the Scuola Leonardo da Vinci in Florence so that we could take gelato classes in Italian and read the recipes. Justin went to Gelato University in Imola near Bologna, and later took master courses in gelato making in Milan and Turin. One of the highlights was going to the international gelato convention held each year in Rimini–we had a wonderful time researching flavors!
What do you miss the most about living there?
The sense of beauty. There’s just an appreciation and an attention to making things beautiful–whether it’s a ribbon on a box of pastries or a landscape or the garnish on a pan of gelato–that made life there very fulfilling. We also have truly lovely friends there whom we miss terribly.
Do you even eat gelato anymore?
I do! Not as often as I used to when we were testing out flavors all over Italy though. Yesterday we made some strawberry sorbetto with some teeny tiny strawberries from a local grower and I had to try some.
Do you ever cheat and go to Graeters or Comfy Cow?
We like to think of it as market research. I have to say, we’re not as motivated to go out for ice cream as we used to be since we actually live in a townhouse over our gelato shop, but we do have the occasional cone or cup around town. It’s nice to sit back and let someone else do the work sometimes!
What is your favorite place to go eat?
Proof on Main is our anniversary/birthday go-to, but we’re also big fans of Wiltshire on Market, Caffe Classico and Mayan Cafe. Nancy’s Bagels and Please and Thank You are our favorites for breakfast. And of course we love Luigi’s for lunch.
I would ask you what you like to do on a Saturday night, but I’m sure you are working. So what do you like to do on a special night off?
We might take a drive through the country and go to Monday Fried Chicken Night at Wallace Station in Midway, which is amazing. Dinner at home with friends is alway a special treat for us!
You are a breast cancer survivor at a very young age. How has that impacted your life and your business?
My current attitude is that as long as everyone is alive and healthy then nothing else is really that big a deal. I try to spend as much time with my husband and girls as I can. More exercise and less stress definitely. Lately I’ve been participating in the Livestrong program at the YMCA, which I would encourage any cancer survivors to check out. I’m also a lot more vigilant now about what my family and I eat. My poor children are just stuffed with broccoli and cauliflower!
Who is your mentor?
I really admire Ben and Jerry [of the ice cream franchise] and the way they were able to incorporate a social mission into their original concept. We do lots of charity work, but one of my projects now is to design a way for us to make a more meaningful and sustained way to give back the community. Ben and Jerry are good examples to study!
What is best advice you have received in business?
Solve your customers’ problems, don’t expect them to solve yours. If I were giving advice to someone starting a business, it would be this: hire a bookkeeper!
If you weren’t a gelataia or an art historian, what would you secretly love to do?
Write books. Own a vineyard.
You literally live above the gelateria. Do you ever get to “turn off”?
We are closed on Mondays in the winter and those days are very peaceful. Otherwise it’s pandemonium around here with teenage employees calling up for help (no one can ever seem to find the dustpan), neighborhood children sneaking up to play, deliveries, customers and salespeople. Last year some of our neighbors moved to Michigan, so we inherited their old piano which they rolled down the sidewalk and into our store. So now we have impromptu customer concerts, as well as my daughter Lily’s weekly piano lesson added to the mix. Plus we just got a puppy. I’m not sure I even remember what “off” is like!
What is your weakness?
Favorite thing to do in Louisville:
Go watch the Frankfort Avenue Easter Parade at Nancy’s Bagels after going to the Easter Egg Hunt in Brown Park. It’s such a fun, comunity-oriented, low-stress event.
Three things you cannot live without (besides God, family and friends):
Books, the beach and Roku.
What are you reading right now?
Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence by of my favorite authors, Tim Parks. On deck next is Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.
A grand thank you to Kristin Gilbert, who took time out of her busy schedule for our photo shoot. To link to Gelato Gilberto, click here.
As always, thank you to Adele Reding Studio and their wonderful work. Their photographs are truly “the best of the best.” To link to their website, click here.